March 13, 2013

ATHANASIOU: Death and Facebook

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When I was six, I asked my neighbor’s mom, “What happens when we die?” Frankie lived two doors down. We were best friends (and married), so I felt comfortable asking my “mother-in-law” about whatever I couldn’t figure out myself. Many of the questions I had as a six-year-old have been answered since then, but that one certainly hasn’t. I remain uncertain and frightened of the finality associated with  “passing away.” In the wake of two untimely deaths, I sit here, confused. I realize the strength in our communities on campus to help us deal with tragedy. Additionally, I recognize our various means of mourning. From public memorials to scholarships, the ways in which we commemorate are vast. But the ways in which our generation expresses grief and coping as increasingly moved to the digital sphere.

Three years ago, in the summer following my senior year of high school, there was a terrible car accident in my hometown. Two young men, both approaching their sophomore year in college, were out for a drive one August evening. It was raining heavily, and the boys were driving a small car when a Hummer driving in the opposite direction swerved out of its lane and into theirs. Vinnie Simone and Mike McCormick were killed instantly. This devastated our town deeply. These were boys that had played little league and gone through much of the public school system; they were known and loved. Following their passing, profile pictures and notes flooded Facebook in their memory. Nearly four years later, I still see a great deal of activity on my newsfeed around their birthdays and on the anniversary of the accident.

Joe Quandt ’15, an admired sophomore in my major passed away two weeks ago. He was cherished by many, and in the days following his death, friends and family alike have utilized his Facebook as a virtual memorial. The page — now sprinkled with posts, stories and photographs — serves as a place of comfort for those trying to make sense of this tragic event. Similarly, Andrew Quinn ’12, who was victim to a hit-and-run on the streets of New York City this week, is being memorialized through the Internet. His loved ones are sharing their sadness, trying to make sense of it all via long notes and letters on their Facebooks. Others write thank you messages with gratitude for a lesson learned or friendship had. In other instances, Facebook is an opportunity to acknowledge a co-existence and a sorrow that exists even in the absence of a close friendship.

I was lucky enough to grow up five minutes away from my maternal grandparents. When my grandpa, “pappou” in Greek, passed away, I did not know how to cope. It was the first time I’d lost someone close to me, and I had trouble grasping the disappearance of a person from my life. It took months to digest the idea that I would never hear his voice or feel his presence again. He was this incredible force in my life, someone I’d seen every day for 17 years, but was suddenly gone. In trying to parse through my emotions, I wrote him a note. I asked him to forgive me for going to a concert the following week with friends since we’d already bought tickets. I said thanks for picking me up from elementary school for so many years. I wrote things I had previously shared and others I had not. The note was just as much for him as it was for me. As a means of closure, this letter, which was put in the breast pocket of his suit when he was buried, was my means of communicating with him. In his last days in hospice, I wondered what he could comprehend. Today, I wonder if my letter’s content ever made it to him in some spiritual way.

I think most of our generation’s use of Facebook as a place for mourning facilitates communication — with the ones we’ve lost, with fellow mourners and with ourselves. The online platform offers a public space of sorts for us to declare what we feel without having to say it out loud. Ironically, Facebook also provides a mean of experiencing grief that is not explicitly yours. Simply moving through your news feed, one can participate, or be an onlooker in others’ grief —another column in itself. It’s a strange online community that is formed to share sentiments. So, what is it? Is it good, bad, weird, morbid? I think Facebook and social media generally offers a new realm of connectivity for people looking for solidarity. It connects those far and near dealing with something larger than themselves. But of course, with this great freedom comes responsibility. It’s imperative that we remain cognizant of just how public these platforms are. Thinking about what we type before we post and generally being sensitive to our many audiences is more important than ever — particularly in the case of these unthinkable tragedies.

Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She may be reacched at kathanasiou@cornellsun.com. Kat’s Cradle appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou